to have and to hold

Some of you are seasoned birdwatchers, hikers, campers, naturalists or even all of the above. Many, of course, are just beginning your outdoor adventures. Whether you are comfortable in the outdoors or simply wish to develop a new family interest in spending more time outside, parenthood can bring new opportunities and new challenges to something as simple as a walk in the woods. 


Old habits or practices may need to be adapted in order to facilitate the children’s needs needs and new approaches explored in order to discover which goals are realistic. How far can you expect a child to walk independently, for example? We’d like to share a simple idea that can help children connect with the outdoors in a way that responds to their age and developmental stage. Having something to carry on a walk or a short hike can help a child find meaning in the experience, particularly if your family are new to this. No, we don’t mean a favorite toy or even a nature guidebook! We chose two common items for very different reasons. Read on to find out more! 

For a child aged between 3 and 6 years

Think about the characteristics of children this age. They are interested in a process, rather than a product. In the outdoors this means that the idea of walking appeals to them for the simple joy of exercising their body. Typically, a child of this age wants to move; the trick is that legs are still short and muscles are still developing. By focusing on the journey and not the destination, you can enhance your time outside. Begin with short trails that feature a point of interest, such as a pond, a flower bed or a bird observatory. Be accepting in the fact that, as your preschooler becomes familiar with the territory, a sense of routine and order may prompt requests to return to the same place rather than to explore someplace new. This is based on natural developmental tendencies, and worth respecting. Engage in the repetition of connecting with places that are known and gradually introduce new trails and adventures. 

A small bucket or pail is a useful item for a child to carry on a walk in the outdoors. Take care to ensure that it is child-sized and (ideally) made from natural materials. This bucket will become a receptacle for all sorts of tiny objects that are discovered along the walking route. Have you ever noticed that a young child is especially interested in small treasures. Look in their jacket pockets! You will usually find things like a pebble, a doll’s shoe, the world’s shortest pencil or a pretty shell. Capitalize on this by enabling a collection to begin but please respect your child’s wish to gather what it only attractive to them. In other words, refrain from pointing things out along the way. By doing so you will empower your child to experience independence and focus more on the environment rather than you. Be observant, of course, and provide guidance when necessary, such as explaining that a plant needs its leaves to grow (which is why we don’t pull leaves off living plants) and why some things have germs that may make us sick (some objects, particularly from animal remains, may be out of bounds). Convey a respect for living creatures and your child will instinctively be content to watch them go about their own tiny business without disturbing them. 

A small collection can be examined at home later, and can generate an interest in something that could be enhanced by a trip to the library. Choose picture books that are age-appropriate and, if possible, that feature images consistent with what you have found. If a child can make a connection between an image and a tangible object, learning becomes meaningful and something to be celebrated. Encourage your child to keep some favorite treasures and model how many items can be returned to nature, even in your own back garden. Create a special place for this to occur, which might become a favorite corner in which to play during afternoons spent at home.


For a child aged between 6 and 9 years

A child of this age exhibits characteristics that are somewhat different. To begin with, there is a far greater interest in pursuing a trail in order to reach a destination, which  can open up more possibilities for exploring nature. Now that a child is clearly experiencing a growth spurt, their legs are getting stronger, and longer walks will become more appealing. Eyes will become more discriminating when it comes to tiny treasures from nature and so a bucket will likely lose its appeal around the age of five and a half.

Six year-olds are emerging as morally conscious young people, who are ready to debate what is fair and unfair, as well as learn more about their wider environment and the life cycle in nature. At six, their capacity to appreciate the abstract is developing and learning can now begin with informational facts that are followed up by research. At six, a child is also evaluating role models. Lead by example, and take the time to provide reading opportunities where role models can be discussed; consider a book such as Small Wonders, by Matthew Clark Smith, which introduces Jean-Henri Fabre and his interest in the insect world. If a young child has been shown how to respect insects from early in life, this topic can take on a much more hands-on approach at this point. Consider acquiring a bug carrier, or, better still, make one if there is a woodworker or a crafter in your home. Your child will enjoy being involved in this activity, and it can complement a whole series of discussions about insects populations, their role in the ecosystem, their unique behaviors, as well as their life cycles and their physical capabilities. Unlike a preschooler, who is by nature somewhat egocentric, a child at this age appreciates conversation and social engagement.

This is a great time to invest in a subscription to a nature magazine aimed at a young audience, and to pay close attention to local nature centers where weekend workshops may be held to engage children in nature-related activities. From the age of six a child is becoming ever more social and will be seeking a peer group that shares common interests, making it an ideal time to connect with other young naturalists!

Once your bug home is ready to be taken out on a hike, the child should already be aware of some of the insect species that may be encountered during the excursion. There will also be sufficient understanding of the need to provide appropriate shelter for any creature hosted in the container, as well as an appreciation of why it is necessary to release insects back into the wild after a few minutes of examination. With the passing of time, a sketchbook or a camera could enhance this kind of natural adventure, but for the moment remember that a child instinctively lives in the present and will connect best with nature without too many external distractions. 

Observe your child, watch how they learn and encourage their independent interests. Along the way, happy trails!